A Holistic Approach to Urinary Tract Infections
A urinary tract infection (UTI) is a general term for infections anywhere within the urinary tract, usually in the bladder or kidney. A bladder infection is also called cystitis. A kidney infection is also called pyelonephritis.
UTIs typically cause burning with urination, a need to urinate very frequently and urgently but in small amounts, and pelvic pain. Some people also have low back pain with a UTI. Symptoms of fever and pain in one side of the back, just under the rib cage, suggest that the infection has spread to one of the kidneys.
Some patients do not have any of these symptoms. Involuntary leakage of urine (incontinence) is often caused by UTIs.
UTIs occur when bacteria that live in another part of the body make their way into the urine and are able to stay there and grow. In most cases, this is due to factors within the body, such as a bladder that has not yet healed from another infection. Certain blood types have been found to be associated with a higher chance of UTIs. Some people also express proteins in the bladder that make it easier for bacteria to stay in the bladder and grow.
On occasion, a patient will have an underlying anatomic problem that causes the infections to occur. These may include kidney stones, poor emptying of the bladder, or the presence of a foreign body, such as a catheter.
Recurrent infections tend to happen because of a vicious cycle of bladder inflammation and disruption of the normal bacteria in the body. Because infections come from bacteria that are normally present in the body, having unhealthy bacteria in the body is a set-up for infections. When the bladder is already inflamed from a recent infection, it becomes much easier to get another infection, and the cycle begins. Taking antibiotics kills the infection but also tends to kill the good bacteria in the body as well (those that do not cause infections), and these bacteria are then replaced by those that are more likely to cause infections.
A UTI is suspected based on symptoms. A urinalysis can be performed immediately in the office, and certain findings on this suggest that an infection is present. However, the only way to know for sure if an infection is present is to perform a urine culture, in which the urine is sent to the lab and monitored to see if bacteria grow from it. When an infection is found in the urine, tests are run on the bacteria to determine which antibiotics can kill it.
UTIs are typically treated with antibiotics. Studies show that for most women, who do not have underlying problems, a 3 day course of antibiotics is as effective as a longer course. In complicated cases and in men, a longer treatment is needed.
Mild infections can sometimes be cured with natural therapies, including the use of uva ursi and marshmallow root, two herbs that help to heal the urinary tract. A tea can be prepared by brewing 1 tablespoon of each of the herbs in 1 cup of water for several minutes. These herbs are available at the Brenham Health Food Store, located at 1011 W Main Street. These herbs can be tried at the first sign of an infection, but if symptoms are severe, fever is present, or symptoms are not improving within 1 or 2 days, it is important that a culture be obtained and antibiotics started to prevent more serious illness. The blended tea should be drank 4 times a day for 7 days to completely clear the infection.
Drinking large amounts of water, especially with lemon added, helps to flush the urinary tract.
1. Cranberry products.
Both cranberry juice and tablets have been proven in multiple scientific studies to be as effective as daily antibiotics for preventing recurrent UTIs. Most cranberry juice, however, contains large amounts of acid and sugar and is not well-tolerated. Cranberry tablets are effective and do not have these side effects. One good brand is Nature’s Plus Cranberry 1000, which is available at the Brenham Health Food Store, and can be taken twice daily. More information on cranberry products is provided in this article. Cranberry products have been well-studied in children, young women, and elders and found to be effective in all groups.
2. Low dose antibiotics.
The standard treatment for recurrent UTIs over the past several years has been the use of low dose antibiotics taken daily or after sexual intercourse, if infections are associated with sex. Studies have now shown that cranberry tablets are at least as effective and have fewer side effects. However, antibiotics can still be used. It is best to take an antibiotic that has a minimal effect on the remainder of the body, so that the healthy bacteria in the body are not killed.
Probiotics are pills that contain the healthy bacteria that normally are in the colon and vagina. When these places contain healthy bacteria, it is much less likely that you will get an infection. When you take antibiotics to kill an infection, these good bacteria are also killed. The bacteria that come back in their place are often bacteria that are more likely to cause infections. Taking probiotics helps to restore the healthy bacteria in your body. A good brand sold at the Brenham Health Food Store is Nutrition Now’s PB8, which is taken once a day. I recommend that you use this for several months to rebuild your system and then for at least a month every time you take antibiotics for any reason. This article discusses probiotics in more detail.
4. Boosting the immune system.
A healthy immune system helps you resist infections. Several vitamins help with immune system function. I recommend a regular daily dose of vitamins A, C, and zinc, and a higher dose when you have an infection. This handout provides details on the doses to use and other tips for having a healthy immune system.
5. Mind-body medicine.
Emotions and stress affect the body by causing the release of chemicals that affect physical processes. Many people believe that chronic illnesses such as recurrent UTIs are the body’s way of trying to get your attention. Unreleased anger is thought to be one emotion commonly associated with UTIs. A great book that goes into this further is Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom by Christiane Northrup, MD.
6. Lifestyle factors.
Many other factors contribute to UTIs. These include constipation and diarrhea, vaginal health, and sex. Problems with the digestive tract tend to alter bladder function and increase the amount of bacteria present in the pelvic area. Anything that irritates the vagina makes it easier for infections to take hold–the use of douches or scented tampons, or having a dry and irritated vagina are both factors. Many women find that infections tend to occur after sex. Often, it is helpful to urinate before and after sex, to take a low dose antibiotic or cranberry tablet after sex, and to drink extra water afterwards to help flush your system.
Recurrent Infections Can Be Stopped
Having repeated urinary tract infections is very frustrating. The good news is that patients respond very well to a preventive program, and the infections will become less common and then very infrequent altogether. Once the bladder has a chance to heal and the body is restored to its normal balance, health can be enjoyed again.